Bloomberg News

‘Code of the West’ Guides Otter in Taking Idaho Beyond Potatoes

June 22, 2011

June 22 (Bloomberg) -- Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter pulled a pocket-sized Constitution from his back pocket with a grin and recited the 10th Amendment from memory.

“Twenty-eight words,” Otter said about the passage that grants states rights not given to the federal government. “They wanted to keep it simple because they wanted the states to be the laboratory of this republic.”

The cattle roper who once won a “Mr. Tight Jeans” contest and lives by the “Code of the West” is making a career of wrangling with the federal government.

The 69-year-old Republican defied U.S. efforts to increase Idaho’s wolf population, directing local officials not to report, investigate or arrest anyone who shot the animals. In April, he banned state agencies from implementing President Barack Obama’s health-care law, arguing that the federal government shouldn’t regulate a person’s choice of health coverage. As a U.S. representative, he was one of three Republicans to vote against the USA Patriot Act in 2001.

“Our Constitution was put together for a free people,” Otter said in an interview last month from his office at the Capitol, nestled at the foot of the snow-capped Boise foothills. “Whenever any of those freedoms are threatened, then we need to rally around that.”

Channeling the Founders

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said he’s often seen Otter draw his Constitution and read a passage at policy meetings with Republican leaders.

“He’s a man of principle and he is principally driven by the Founding Fathers’ thought process and his understanding of that,” Davis, a Republican from Idaho Falls, said in a telephone interview.

His politics of opposition to federal authority, and his backing of a suit against the health-care law, haven’t found universal approval.

“We’re spending a lot of money on lawsuits against the federal government that we could be using to pay teachers and provide health insurance for people who can’t afford it,” Larry Grant, chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party, said in a June 20 telephone interview.

Otter, who has argued that predators decimate big game such as elk, is “clearly anti-wolf,” Suzanne Stone, the Boise-based Northern Rockies representative of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Blameless Wolves

For Otter to “undermine existing laws” that protect wolves is embarrassing, she said. “These animals are innocent. They are not doing anything wrong by being back in their native habitat.”

House Minority Leader John Rusche, a Democrat who represents Lewiston, said in a June 20 telephone interview that Otter “is a very affable individual. I enjoy the governor when I’m around him, but that doesn’t translate into forward-looking and engaging policy.”

The second-term governor first tasted politics in 1969 when he became the assistant secretary and parliamentarian of the state Senate, a role that let him steep himself in the legislative process. He was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1972 on a platform of limited government.

Born about 27 miles (43 kilometers) west of Boise in Caldwell, the sixth of nine children, Otter recalls being about 17 and living on 300 acres outside Meridian, when his father, an electrician, hurt his leg. Otter quit school and joined his mother in running the farm, with its 84 cattle.

“That year and a half, two years, that my mom and I ran that farm was a real growing experience for me,” Otter said. “Those cows had to be milked every morning and they had to be milked every night.”

Shoveling Spuds

Otter, who has four children, met his first wife, Gay, during a summer job pouring road asphalt to earn college money. In 1965, he went to work for Gay’s father, J.R. Simplot, the founder of the J.R. Simplot Co., which operates potato processing plants that produce French fries for McDonald’s Corp., the world’s largest restaurant chain. One of his first jobs was shoveling potatoes. He became president of Simplot International before retiring in 1993.

The governor, who is divorced from Gay, met his second wife, Lori, 44, a former Miss Idaho USA, at a July 4 parade while he was campaigning for lieutenant governor, a post in which he served from 1987 to 2001.

Cowboy Pageant

Otter earned the additional title of “Mr. Tight Jeans” after his sister and her friends entered him in the contest at a country-and-western lounge in 1992.

“I was wearing Wranglers,” Otter said in the interview. “And I won.”

Three months later, Otter got a drunken-driving citation, derailing plans to run for governor. He ran instead for another term as lieutenant governor.

“I had a very promising future, and made a terrible mistake that night,” Otter said.

Still, he won the governor’s office in 2006, defeating Democrat Jerry Brady 53 percent to 44 percent.

Two years later, Otter started Project 60, an initiative to increase the state’s gross domestic product to $60 billion by drawing out-of-state companies, encouraging foreign investment and supporting existing businesses.

Idaho, which in 1890 became the 43rd state, has diversified from agriculture -- though it is still the country’s biggest potato producer. The state is home to Boise-based Micron Technology Inc., the largest U.S. maker of computer-memory chips, papermaker Boise Inc., and Idacorp Inc., which owns the Idaho Power Co., an electric utility.

The state’s gross domestic product grew to $55.4 billion as of June 7 from $51.5 billion in 2008, said Don Dietrich, director of the Idaho Commerce Department.

Targets of Opportunity

State officials have targeted businesses in California, Oregon and Washington state, which have faced deficits in the billions, Dietrich said.

“We live within our means,” Dietrich said. “That provides a huge level of assuredness. They are looking for a predictable and stable government.”

Idaho doesn’t issue long-term general-obligation bonds, said Shawn Nydegger, investment officer at the State Treasurer’s Office. The state issues debt to manage cash flow, he said. Idaho sold $500 million in one-year tax-anticipation notes in June 2010 and another $500 million this month, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Outside the halls of government, Otter enjoys roping steer at his ranch in Star, participating in team events.

“I like to rope. I like to fish and hunt. I like to camp, but mostly I like to rodeo,” Otter said.

He abides by the “Code of the West,” 10 principles that hang on a wall across from his desk. They include “Live each day with courage,” “Do what has to be done” and “Be tough, but fair.”

“Number eight is the one I have the most difficulty with,” Otter said. “Talk less and say more.”

Clement Leroy “Butch” Otter at a glance:

Born: Caldwell, Idaho, May 3, 1942 (age 69).

Party: Republican

Spouse: Lori, 44, former Miss Idaho USA.

Children: John, Carolyn, Kimberley, Corrine

Education: Bachelor of Arts, political science, College of Idaho, Caldwell, Idaho, 1967.

Career: various positions, J.R. Simplot Co., 1965-1993; member, Idaho House of Representatives, 1973-1976; Idaho lieutenant governor, 1987-2001; member, U.S. House of Representatives, 2001-2006; governor, 2007-present.

Noteworthy: Member of the National Rifle Association and the Idaho Cowboys Association.

--Editors: Stephen Merelman, Mark Schoifet.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alison Vekshin in San Francisco at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at

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